The first thing we learn about Alice (Reese Witherspoon) in Hallie Meyers-Shyer’s directorial debut, “Home Again,” is that she’s a modern rom-com’s dream leading lady: a newly separated single mom with a kick-ass house who is just trying to make it (all of it, any of it) work. The second thing we learn about Alice is that she’s the daughter of a very famous, very respected, and very dead American director, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Meyers-Shyer’s own heritage — she’s Nancy Meyers’ daughter — that marks one of the film’s few original ideas. Still, it’s an amenable enough ramble of a romantic comedy, and Witherspoon is as charming as ever in the genre in which she excels.
As is contractually obligated in any Meyers joint (the “Parent Trap” and “Something’s Gotta Give” filmmaker also produced the film), “Home Again” is mostly set in and around a stunning Los Angeles mansion in which Alice and her cute kids (Lola Flanery and Eden Grace Redfield) are attempting to rebuild their lives. Newly transplanted from New York City after a seemingly very gracious split with her husband Austin (a mostly wasted Michael Sheen), Alice is back in the sparkling city of her youth, and she’s eager to make a go of it. Spending time with her daughters keeps her busy, as do her nice friends and overbearing mom (Candice Bergen, playing a version of herself), along with a budding interior design career (hamstrung by her new client, played by a delightfully unhinged Lake Bell), but she’s in the market for something a little more… zesty.
A night out with her friends takes a surprising left turn when the ladies meet a trio of wide-eyed wannabe filmmakers (Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky, and Pico Alexander) all too happy to toss back the shots and hit the dance floor with their slightly older new pals. It’s all well-meaning and sweet, a wholly PG-13 outing that won’t need much of a snip when it comes time to play in inevitably heavy television rotation alongside similar fare like, well, like Meyers’ own movies.
Alice immediately sparks to handsome Harry (Alexander), the headshot-ready member of the trio — though, of course, what he really wants to do is direct — who has big dreams for a feature-length version of the festival hit short he’s already made alongside his brother (Wolff) and their long-time best pal George (Rudnitsky). It’s all very insider-y and Hollywood-leaning, yet the series of meetings the “three boy wonders” go on with their increasingly out-of-touch representatives are funny enough that a lack of CAA working knowledge won’t keep anyone from laughing. Also, they seem like genuinely nice boys! Thanks to the wonders of tequila and very bad decisions, the guys end up back at Alice’s sprawling hand-me-down home, only to discover her familial connection to a filmmaker they all adore. Hollywood: a small town.
Screenshot/Open Road Films
Through a handful of iffy contrivances, Alice offers the boys the chance to live in her (predictably huge and impeccably outfitted) guest house, a convenient enough arrangement for them, but one that’s particularly good for Alice, newly smitten with Harry and giddily leaning into a middle-aged sexual awakening. Although the film is Meyers-Shyer’s debut, she previously wrote a script (once rumored to be directed by her own mother) called “The Chelsea,” an ensemble dramedy about the various denizens of a NYC apartment building and their connections with each other, a kind of loosely assembled “urban family,” and that theme carried over to “Home Again.” Ostensibly a rom-com about a middle-aged mom tapping into her desires and getting on with life after a heartbreak, the film finds most of its big emotional beats in the burgeoning bonds between Alice, her three filmmakers, and her own kids, who take to them almost instantly.
The offbeat family unit functions well enough — at least for a time — and as damn silly as it sounds on paper, Meyers-Shyer knows how to piece together a big cast that genuinely seems to enjoy being around each other. While Alice and Harry tiptoe around their romance, George bonds with young Isabel about writing, and Bergen’s Lillian floats in and out of frame, having a grand old time with anyone and everyone. Further complications and connections are thrown in at random, pushing “Home Again” into increasingly disconnected spaces every time a plotline wears thin, zipping between Alice’s bad luck at work to the Hollywood machinations that might tear the guys apart, plus subplots for Alice’s eldest daughter and frequent pop-ins from Bergen. Life is messy, but the sprawl that overtakes “Home Again” is unwieldy and unwise, and detracts from Witherspoon’s predictably plucky performance.
By the time the film finally brings her ex into frame, only to further upend what is already a tenuous lifestyle for Alice and her trio of houseguests, “Home Again” has sputtered out and abandoned its most charming elements. It’s a last ditch for drama, and Meyers-Shyer almost saves it by opting for some final act twists that set the film for a sweet, if mostly uninspired conclusion. Meyers-Shyer has a knack for ensemble comedy, and her ability to pull together a solid cast (Rudnitsky, hitting the film after just one year on “Saturday Night Live,” is the film’s big treat) is her greatest strength, but it’s disappointing to see her tread such familiar territory. Next time, she should build her own house.
“Home Again” will hit theaters on Friday, September 8.